How to destroy a prestigious career in less than a year

I made a prediction last summer.

The fall from grace was precipitous, but it should have happened long ago. The molecular biologist David M. Sabatini has been outright fired from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Whitehead Institute, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he also loses his tenured position at MIT soon enough. Can you guess what prompted his ouster?

Sabatini was the unpleasant combination of arrogance and entitlement that led him to think he could fake data and sexually harass his students. He lost all of his affiliated positions at various prestigious institutions, but kept his tenure at MIT.

Until now.

David Sabatini, the high-profile biologist who was forced out of the Whitehead Institute in summer 2021 after a probe found he violated its sexual harassment policies, has resigned his tenured professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His move came after three senior MIT officials recommended revoking his tenure.

“Professor Sabatini has stepped down from his tenured faculty position at MIT … without exercising his policy right to request that a faculty committee … review the recommendation to revoke tenure,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif wrote in an email to faculty members this afternoon.

Good riddance to bad rubbish. I do wonder where Sabatini is going to end up, since he’s managed to flush his entire career down the toilet. There’s a lesson to be learned there.

I think this comment from Nancy Hopkins is also an important message for everyone considering careers in science:

Nancy Hopkins, an emeritus professor of biology who helped lead a landmark push for gender equality on the MIT faculty in the 1990s, called the Sabatini resignation “a milestone,” noting in an email, “First, MIT had rules in place that forbid the faculty behavior in question. Second, a young woman had the courage to demand that the rules be enforced. And third, she was heard.”

She added: “It is noteworthy—and another sign of progress—that the heads of HHMI and the Whitehead Institute and MIT’s Dean of Science are all women—two of them the first women to hold these positions.”

Ha! The dude-bros were right to fear the feminists!

Creepy ghouls squared

When anti-abortion zealot Lauren Handy’s house was raided, they found five fetuses, and Handy made a promise.

Handy declined to speak on camera Wednesday, but told WUSA9 she expected the raid to happen “sooner or later.” She also declined to say what was in the coolers, saying only that “people would freak out when they heard.”

Well, the shoe has dropped. She claims they buried 110 fetuses.

“During the five days they were under my stewardship, the 115 victims of abortion violence were given funeral mass for upbaptized children and 110… were given a proper burial in a private cemetery,” said Handy, the director of activism at the group Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising.

Handy claimed that on March 25, she and Terrisa Bukovinac, her group’s founder and executive director, had gone to Washington Surgi-Clinic to protest abortions. There, they said, they found a medical waste truck driver and asked him if they could take one of the boxes he was loading outside, arguing that they were filled with “dead babies” and promising to give them a “proper burial.”

The driver denies that story. Apparently, though, Handy’s group is in the business of stealing medical waste.

Ick. Just ick. You should feel disgust when contemplating Lauren Handy, the garbage person.

Why am I here?

How odd. This video of my lecture on extrachromosomal inheritance is blowing up on YouTube — I guess The Algorithm hiccupped and is serving it to random people. That in itself isn’t very interesting, but I am amused by all the comments. It’s very existential, with people wondering “why am I here?” and just generally baffled at how this particularly video ended up in their recommendations. I wonder at this question too.

Of course, the answer to the question is easy: because a program told you to be here.

This is a blip that will quickly fade, especially since today’s topic will be maternal inheritance.

Cancel Culture! Yargleargleblarlgle! Justice!

Y’all know Louis CK was awarded a Grammy the other night, right? Boy, he sure was canceled. He won’t be whipping out his tallywacker in front of unsuspecting women from now on, will he? They might punish him with a Netflix special or something horrible like that.

But here’s something even worse: He Jiankui has been set free. He Jiankui is the guy I called a self-aggrandizing mad scientist for his reckless, selfish experiment in which he modified human embryos with CRISPR/Cas9 and brought them to term. He claimed he was trying to prevent HIV/AIDS by deleting an immune system protein that the virus uses to bind to cells, but we know nothing about potential side effects or new susceptibilities it might confer, nor do we know how safe the procedure is, or even how effective this deletion would be. He charged ahead and ignored all ethical guidelines to make genetically modified babies, and then announced it as a big surprise at a conference. I bet he was surprised when the Chinese police arrested him and put him in prison for a few years.

But that’s all! And now he’s out.

The daring Chinese biophysicist who created the world’s first gene-edited children has been set free after three years in a Chinese prison.

Wait, wait, wait. “Daring”? You went with “daring”? What’s wrong with the editors at the MIT Technology Review? I would have suggested “unethical” or “criminal” or “incompetent”, and “biophysicist” sounds too complementary: “hack” would have been more accurate.

Then it goes on with this tripe:

It’s unclear whether He has plans to return to scientific research in China or another country. People who know him have described the biophysicist, who was trained at Rice University and Stanford, as idealistic, naïve, and ambitious.

Why are they flattering this guy? Why are there any doubts about his return to scientific research? There ought to be no question that He Jiankui should never be permitted to participate in any biomedical research ever again.

Unfortunately, he’s apparently part of a “network” of evil mad scientists who haven’t been hampered by the arrest of just one capo and are set to get back to work.

The researcher spent around three years in China’s prison system, including a period spent in detention as he awaited trial. Since his release, he has been in contact with members of his scientific network in China and abroad.

While responsibility for the experiment fell on He and other Chinese team members, many other scientists knew of the project and encouraged it. These include Michael Deem, a former professor at Rice University who participated in the experiment, and John Zhang, head of a large IVF clinic in New York who had plans to commercialize the technology.

Deem left his post at Rice in 2020, but the university has never released any findings or explanation about its involvement in the creation of the babies. Deem’s LinkedIn profile now lists employment with an energy consulting company he started.

“It is extraordinary and unusual that [He Jiankui] and some of his colleagues were imprisoned for this experiment,” says Eben Kirksey, an associate professor at the Alfred Deakin Institute, in Australia, and the author of The Mutant Project, a book about He’s experiment that includes interviews with some of the participants. “At the same time many of [his] international collaborators—like Michael Deem and John Zhang—were never sanctioned or formally censured for involvement.”

“In many ways justice has not been served,” says Kirksey.

I’m getting a little tired of “justice has not been served” stories, but that seems to be all we get anymore. Hey, how’s Donald Trump’s presidential campaign going?

What is a woman?

This seems to be the question for April. Ketanji Brown Jackson was asked, and I don’t think she gave a good answer: she basically punted. She told Marsha Blackburn that she was unable to answer the question because she is “not a biologist.” The problem isn’t that she’s not a biologist, it’s that the question is so complex and involves so many interacting perspectives that it is silly to expect a one sentence answer. It’s not a true/false question. It demands a full thesis paper to even begin to touch the subject, and it’s going to involve biology, genetics, endocrinology, psychology, sociology, and history to give an adequate answer. Good biologists know that, too, and so please, don’t expect us to deliver a definitive, complete definition. It’s also not going to lead you to the simple binary that Blackburn wants.

Would you believe Answers in Genesis tried to answer the question? They’re stuck on the biology, too — and I tell you what, if you’re expecting a bunch of young earth creationists to give a reliable answer on a biology question, you’re boned.

The biological differences between men and women go far beyond the reproductive system and secondary sexual characteristics. Women’s bones are, on average, less dense than men’s. Women have less muscle and more fat on their frames. Research suggests that women have better language skills and men are better at some types of math, though some of this has been attributed to differences in brain function, learning styles, and perhaps cultural expectations. (And while this may be true on a population level, it says nothing about the relative abilities of any particular man or woman.) Women’s biology is so different from men’s that doctors are now realizing they have distinctive heart attack symptoms and sometimes have different reactions to medication. Women’s lifespans are, on average, a few years longer than men’s. That the sexes are different regarding their bodies, their interests, abilities, and even their medical needs should not be surprising, nor should it be a boasting point for those of either sex.

Statistical epiphenomena are not particularly useful mechanisms for identifying the differences. They are even vaguely aware of the problem, as you may notice with that parenthetical comment that it says nothing about the relative abilities of any particular man or woman. Yes, there are differences in the averages, but there is significant overlap, and they are shaped by cultural expectations, as even AiG is able to notice. There are real biological differences, and the variants do tend to cluster into a bimodal distribution, but the properties of a population don’t necessarily apply to the individual. Many of those aren’t at all diagnostically useful — do we have to wait for someone to have a heart attack, die, and then use their symptoms and age at death to determine sex? Boy, those are going to be some depressing gender reveal parties.

Tellingly, they don’t answer the question, either. Their final definition relies on the pathetic trope of looking it up in a dictionary, and saying that everyone just knows what a woman is.

Merriam-Webster has, as of the date of writing, the primary definition of woman as “an adult female person.” The Oxford English Dictionary has the definition as “an adult female human being,” as does the Cambridge Dictionary. Every English dictionary has had a similar definition of the word woman, and up until very recently, everyone everywhere understood that men and women are the two biological sexes that comprise humanity. From ancient times, it is simply assumed that a person is either a man or a woman.

Great. Define “adult”. Define “female”. Define “person”. Every word of that definition has been historically and culturally fluid. Can you at least learn to recognize that these properties that you think are so rigid and definitive are and have always been weebly wobbly culturally defined conventions rather than inviolable biological absolutes?

Oh well, I thought Answers in Genesis would be the absolute rock bottom of the well being dug to haul up buckets of stupidity, but there’s always someone willing to dive a little deeper for that delicious, precious inanity, and here comes Madison Cawthorn.

His definition:

XX chromosomes, no tallywacker.

There are people who identify as women who only have one X chromosome, and other people who identify as men who lack a “tallywacker”. This is a bad definition. It’s simple-minded and trivializing, exactly what you might expect from a Madison Cawthorn.

Let’s turn it around and ask a different question.

What then is a man?

Books as empty as Madison Cawthorn’s cranium

I know. It’s just possession of a penis. Which means that a gigantic literary genre has been an epic waste of time. We can short circuit all the breast beating of Ernest Hemingway and Arthur Miller — just have their protagonists pull their pants down in the opening paragraph, done. Rip SE Hinton out of school libraries, since we can just replace her with a pantsing scene. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? We already know what manhood and masculinity are, good riddance. Homer and the Epic of Gilgamesh? Now superfluous.

It seems to me that all these self-involved authors have been writing an awful lot about what it means to be a man, and we can clear out a lot of library shelf space if we replace it all with the collected works of Madison Cawthorn, which would be a one-page pamphlet with a single line, XX chromosomes, no tallywacker. We can keep all the biology textbooks until the day that someone actually reads one, unlike self-righteous defender of biology Cawthorn, and discovers that they all say that sex is more complex and diverse than the prudes can imagine.

Man, a heck of a lot of famous literature is just guys looking for their tallywacker.

Be the change you want to see

I have to pat myself on the back — I’ve managed to quit an addiction cold turkey. Yeah, I enjoy super-hero comic book movies. They’re the sugary breakfast cereal of Hollywood cinema, probably not very good for you, but they provide that sweet fast-paced visual gratification we all enjoy. (Hmm, maybe a more accurate analogy would be to compare them to porn.)

Now I wouldn’t mind an occasional popcorn movie at all, so I’m not saying they’re entirely bad. I’m only saying that a little more variety would be good, and I’m looking ahead to a long summer of predictable, flashy blockbusters that will fill the theaters, and in my little town with one dinky two-screen theater, that means long, long bookings that will squeeze out any alternatives. I’m casually boycotting them.

I did not see The Batman. Did it offer any novel insights into a tired genre? I doubt it.

This weekend, the theater was playing Morbius, a comic book movie about a vampire super-hero. No, I don’t think so.

Especially since that vein was satisfyingly tapped about 20 years ago, with the Blade trilogy. Did you know all three Blade movies are currently playing on Netflix? Who needs an angsty grimdark vampire movie when we’ve got this?

Oh, baby. Super cool Wesley Snipes, vampire raves with a synthy sound track, chop-sockey swordplay, and evil vampires turning into skeletons with glowing ash? Jared Leto does not tempt me at all. These are classic movies. Talk to me when you’ve got a new twist on a formula that was perfected decades ago (btw, the Michael Keaton Batman was the best, too.)

I fear I won’t be seeing many movies this summer. The new Spiderverse movie will probably be irresistible and will draw me in, but the rest look dismal. And don’t even mention the horrible Harry Potter…thing.